SUMMARY: RESEARCH MISCONDUCT IN SCIENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY – WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
- In a formal discussion on The place of sugar in Australia’s Dietary Intake Guidelines, Parliament House, Canberra, 29 October 2012, I argued that the blatantly false dietary information promoted in the University of Sydney’s high-profile Australian Paradox paper is both an academic disgrace and a menace to public health (#22 on your left). Photos: http://multimedia.aapnewswire.com.au/search.aspx?search=public+discussion+sugar%26%28importdate%3E20121028%29&gallery=PUBLIC+DISCUSSION+SUGAR
- In short, the University is attempting to exonerate added sugar as a key driver of obesity by claiming that consumption trended down between 1980 and 2010, as obesity surged. So sugar is innocent! Awkwardly, this “paradox” – sugar intake down, obesity up – merely reflects eye-popping negligence: in fact, four of the authors’ five separate indicators of consumption trend up not down in their own published charts (Figures 1-4, below), while their preferred measure is based on a data series that was discontinued as unreliable by the ABS after 1998-99 and then falsified over the 2000s.
- Yes, that’s a problem for a self-published journal article that Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence claims is top-notch “peer-reviewed” science. In February, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – highlighting new, stronger evidence that sugar is a key driver of obesity – toughened dietary advice against added sugar, reinforcing my position and further shredding the University’s credibility on “the science” of this matter (#28). Interestingly, the unreliable authors – who recklessly refuse to correct the pro-sugar misinformation they plonked on the scientific record – also are the world’s foremost advocates of the pro-sugar Glycemic Index (GI) approach to nutrition (Section 2; Slides 7, 12 in #22).
- Disturbingly, the negligent paper and its false “finding” were used again a week ago to mislead Federal Parliament inadvertently on the link between sugar consumption and obesity: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F9526da6b-9674-4509-a6d5-a7115a7c1f1a%2F0338%22 So too, the unreliable Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) still promotes the flagrantly false claim of “an inverse relationship” between sugar consumption and obesity: http://daa.asn.au/for-the-media/hot-topics-in-nutrition/sugar-and-obesity/ (Co-author Barclay is influential in DAA and Australian Diabetes Council.)
- So, why is the University of Sydney promoting false information on the origins of obesity and T2-diabetes (#33), together the biggest public-health challenge of our times? Importantly, why is Dr Spence defending an error-ridden, self-published paper – featuring falsified data and a factually incorrect “finding” – as serious “peer-reviewed” science? Inexplicably, the Group of Eight is campaigning for increased public funding for “research intensive” universities without having in place quality controls to ensure competence and integrity in self-published “peer-reviewed” Go8 “science”.
- Why is the University of Sydney recklessly seeking to exonerate sugar as a menace to public health – contradicting the NHMRC’s formal dietary advice – while operating a business that for a fee of up to $6000 per product stamps low-GI sugar and sugary products as Healthy? (Slides 11 and 12 at #22) Why is the University not properly disclosing and managing its serious conflicts of interest?
- Is the University’s Senate comfortable with this episode of in-house “research misconduct”, as defined by the NHMRC? (Section 1) A Fellow of the Senate recently told me that I am in the right on this matter and the University is in the wrong. Widely respected nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton agreed with me a year ago that there is “no evidence that sugar consumption in Australia has fallen” (Section 7).
- In response to the University’s disingenuous defence of its in-house research misconduct, the NHMRC in my opinion should suspend its research funding, until a credible system of quality control is introduced, a system that can be trusted to nip incompetent self-published papers in the bud. So too, the Group of Eight should consider suspending the University of Sydney from its midst, until it replaces its sham quality-control arrangements, and shows it can be trusted not to bring disrepute to the trying-to-be-prestigious group.
INTRODUCTION: Welcome to the mid-2013 revamp of the Australian Paradox website. Importantly, February’s new Australian Dietary Guidelines feature tougher advice against added sugar: “limit” consumption. That is, try not to eat it or drink it! That move was in response to new, stronger scientific evidence that added sugar – especially in softdrinks – is a key driver of obesity. The NHMRC’s anti-sugar assessment represents a serious blow to the scientific credibility of the pro-sugar University of Sydney (#28).
Unfortunately, the University of Sydney’s negligent pro-sugar Australian Paradox paper still has not been corrected or retracted. Its main “finding” collapses under basic scrutiny (Sections 2-8), yet it’s being used by the highly conflicted University to falsely exonerate sugar as a health hazard, and continues to misinform critical debates on public health.
Hello, my name is Rory Robertson. I’ve been a professional economist for a quarter of a century; my qualifications to have a strong view on this matter are outlined in Part 4 of http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/Sugary-Drinks-Ban.pdf . My surprising detour into local nutrition “science” began in 2011, after I stumbled over high-profile nutritionists actively promoting sugar as yummy but harmless, even Healthy (Slides 11-12 in #22). Later that day, I discovered the now-infamous Australian Paradox paper (Slides 7-10, 13-19). Until then, I had (naively) assumed that universities and science journals have strict quality controls in place to ensure only competent investigations and valid results are published. Oops!
Readers, reliable dietary information is critical in the global fight against obesity and diabetes, together as “diabesity” the greatest public-health challenge of our times. This website exists to document the fact that blatantly false information on diet and diabesity is being promoted by high-profile University of Sydney scientists, with the University’s conflicted senior management disingenuously defending its scientists’ self-published nonsense (#19).
My lack of success in securing the correction or retraction of the negligent Australian Paradox paper alongside its latest appearance in Federal Parliament (see link above) have encouraged me to try to express my concerns more clearly. Accordingly, I note that “research misconduct” as defined in the NHMRC’s Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research includes “serious consequences, such as false information on the public record”. In Section 1, below, I argue this Australian Paradox episode constitutes a serious breach of that formal code of conduct by both the University of Sydney’s unreliable scientists and its conflicted senior management.
Amusingly, the University has claimed that quality control in this episode involved “internationally accepted standard practice” (#19), despite being aware that the lead author – Professor Jennie Brand-Miller – and the “Guest Editor” of the publishing journal – Professor Jennie Brand-Miller – are the same person! Umm, is that really standard practice? In fact, quality control has been clownish: the paper and its reckless defence feature a series of obviously false claims, as documented in Sections 1-10 below and in the PDF documents on your left.
Readers, how’s your competence in Year-4 school maths? Could the scholarship here be as hopeless as I am saying? Well, please consider the following published errors: (i)“300 per cent” – the correct figure is 200 per cent (Section 2); (ii)“decreased by 10%” – the correct result is increased by 30% (Section 5); and (iii)“600 g” – the correct figure is 150 g (Section 8). So, three obvious errors, right? Yes, the unreliable-yet-influential authors should immediately publish formal corrections alongside their initial formal Correction back on 9 August 2011: http://www.mdpi.com/
In my opinion, those three simple errors are profoundly important errors, because they confirm the University’s quality control in science is broken. While Vice-Chancellor Spence insists that “…Professor Brand-Miller’s research which appears in Nutrients was independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication”, the range of published errors – small and large – suggests the quality-control process involved, if any, is a sham (Section 8).
Readers, were you surprised to discover such basic errors at the highest levels of Group of Eight science? If so, why not wow your kids, your friends and your colleagues? And check out the eye-popping problems documented in Sections 1-10 below. It’s unsettling to think of the vast sums devoted to funding “research intensive” Go8 universities, with no clear sign that quality control is taken seriously.
If you are a journalist, there’s a great yarn yet to be broadcast on the University of Sydney’s self-publication, promotion and false defence of its ham-fisted Australian Paradox hoax: a publicly funded University has plonked false information on the public record and that blatant misinformation now is poisoning critical health debates, including in Federal Parliament. In my opinion, this is a serious case of research misconduct, something the NHMRC’s code of conduct (Section 1) was designed to “nip in the bud”. The key issues:
- The main problem is a lack of competent quality control over published “science” at a prestigious Go8 university we should be able to trust. In particular, the University of Sydney has sought to exonerate added sugar as a menace to public health on the basis of a determined misrepresentation of key facts (Sections 2-8), while one of the University’s businesses collects revenue by stamping sugary products as Healthy. The University and its scientists in my opinion have failed to properly manage their pro-sugar conflicts of interest (Sections 1 and 9).
- This all matters because added sugar probably is the single-biggest driver of global obesity and diabetes: see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 ; the chart in Part 2, and #28. Insightful books on this issue include: Salt Sugar Fat by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Moss; Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes; Pure, White and Deadly by John Yudkin; Fat Chance by Robert Lustig; and Sweet Poison by David Gillespie, a champion for public health.
- Importantly, outsized rates of sugar consumption are – alongside alcohol and tobacco – a major driver of the unacceptable “gap”in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians: see the bottom row of Table 2 in PDF https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2013/198/7/characteristics-community-level-diet-aboriginal-people-remote-northern-australia
- “The Australian Paradox” – “an inverse relationship” between the consumption of added sugar and obesity. Yes, eat more sugar, and get thinner! The sugar and sugary food and drink industries used that nonsense-based “finding” – supported only by the University of Sydney’s stamp of scientific credibility – as an intellectual spearhead to try to kill Canberra’s plan for tougher dietary advice against added sugar: http://www.smh.com.au/national/health/research-causes-stir-over-sugars-role-in-obesity-20120330-1w3e5.html
- Awkwardly, with revenues from sugary food companies at stake, the University’s conflicted scientists and management must choose between wearing white “Scientific integrity matters” hats or black “Our revenues – and reputations – are at stake, so let’s just just pretend there’s no problem” hats (Section 9). Despite the University now being well aware that its Australian Paradox “finding” is based on the misrepresentation of key facts – including falsified data – it chooses to pretend that everything is fine. In the interests of improved public health and scientific integrity, I’m arguing near and far for the correction or retraction of the “shonky sugar study”. Perhaps after reading Sections 1-10 below, you’ll assess that I have made a strong case for such remedial action.
Apologies for my “tone”, but after the University of Sydney’s summary dismissal in 2012 (Section 8) of my reasonable and absolutely correct critique of the negligent Australian Paradox paper – a paper that is an academic disgrace and remains a menace to public health – I have become somewhat less forgiving in my observations.
1. NHMRC’S DEFINITION OF “RESEARCH MISCONDUCT”
According to the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research overseen by the NHMRC, “research misconduct” includes, amongst other things:
(i) “recklessness or gross and persistent negligence”;
(ii) “serious consequences, such as false information on the public record”; and
(iii) “failure to declare and manage serious conflicts of interest” (Sections 7 and 10 at http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/publications/attachments/r39.pdf )
Readers, below I provide what I consider to be strong evidence that the University of Sydney’s senior scientists – Professor Jennie Brand-Miller and Dr Alan Barclay – and its senior management overseeing the Australian Paradox scandal – Professor Jill Trewhella (Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)) and Dr Michael Spence (Vice-Chancellor) – as a group have breached that formal code of conduct (Section 8).
Readers, please correct me - and be very critical of me publicly – if you think my analysis here or elsewhere is factually incorrect or otherwise unreasonable. Indeed, prove that my basic critique is wrong and you will be showered in the $40,000 Australian Paradox Challenge cash that’s been up for grabs for over a year (#11).
If my analysis is correct – and it is – remedial action is required. As argued above, the NHMRC should suspend the University of Sydney’s research funding until the negligent paper is corrected or retracted, while the Group of Eight should consider suspending the University of Sydney until it shows it can be trusted not to bring disrepute to the trying-to-be-prestigious group.
2. THE NEGLIGENT SELF-PUBLISHED, “PEER REVIEWED” PAPER, AND ITS FOUR “CO-AUTHORS”
The paper: “The Australian Paradox: A Substantial Decline in Sugars Intake over the Same Timeframe that Overweight and Obesity Have Increased“, by the University of Sydney’s Dr Alan W. Barclay and Professor Jennie Brand-Miller. Dr Barclay is Chief Scientific Officer at the University’s Glycemic Index Foundation; and also Head of Research at the Australian Diabetes Council (ADC).
Now, the supposedly “peer-reviewed” paper was self-published in a “Special Issue” of Nutrients, with lead author Professor Brand-Miller wearing a second important hat as the “Guest Editor” of the publishing journal. That’s cosy. Too bad about credible quality control. Here’s the paper: http://www.mdpi.com/journal/nutrients/special_issues/carbohydrates/ (scroll down).
Importantly, why are high-profile University of Sydney scientists publishing a supposedly profound scientific finding – “The Australian Paradox”! – in an obscure pay-as-you-publish E-journal? I will tell you: the obviously faulty paper would never have been published in a real journal with real quality control. The relevant “Deadline for manuscript submissions” closed on 30 September 2010, yet the paper was “Received: 4 March 2011″ (link above). Why was the paper submitted in March 2011, based as it is on outdated FAO data (only to 2003) accessed way back “on 11 August 2009″, some 18 months earlier? Why was the paper not submitted earlier, or the data properly updated?
Perhaps the paper was submitted earlier, elsewhere, but was refused publication, and then quickly self-published in Nutrients? Yes, apparently: by high-profile nutritionist Chris Forbes-Ewan’s unsolicited account (Slide 27 at #18), Dr Barclay’s 2010 Dietitians Association of Australia Conference paper was submitted somewhere for publication but was never published (rejected?). Dr Barclay’s DAA piece somehow then morphed quickly into the self-published Australian Paradox paper, with co-author Alicia Sim out and a new and rather influential co-author – Professor Brand-Miller – in. Further information on that DAA paper’s surprising transformation is available on request.
Adding to the intriguing origins of the Australian Paradox paper, its (final) co-authors acknowledge that “This study was a Masters of Nutrition and Dietetic project conducted by Laura Owens and co-supervised by AWB and JBM” (p. 502). Huh?
Big mystery: whatever happened to those two earlier co-authors? I ask only because if those junior co-authors had remained involved they may have gone to the trouble – before publication – of fixing numerous obvious errors that ultimately were published. Clearly, no-one competent proof-read the paper. For example, would you guess that: (i) Obesity has increased “3 fold in Australians since 1980″ (p. 491) or (ii) Obesity has increased by “~300 per cent” (p. 502)? Again, which is it: (i) “3 fold”, so up by ~200 per cent; or (ii) up by “~300 per cent”? Actually, the authors’ Figure 1A (p. 494) suggests that (i) is correct and (ii) is false.
Yes, errors aplenty yet Vice-Chancellor Spence has assured all that everything was “independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication” (#11). On that, look out for the revealing “decreased by 10%” and “~600g” errors ahead, not to mention the authors confusing up with down (next) and then embracing obviously falsified data as factual (Section 5).
3. WHAT EXACTLY IS THE AUSTRALIAN PARADOX “FINDING”, AND WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
The authors’ summary of the available evidence is very specific: “This analysis of apparent consumption, national dietary surveys and food [beverage] industry data indicates a consistent and substantial decline in total refined or added sugar consumption by Australians over the past 30 years [1980 to 2010]” (my bolding; p. 499 of PDF).
Yes, very specific and also absolutely false, as a growing number of independent observers are aware. Clearly, the authors’ “finding” is contradicted by Figures 1-4 below; that is, four of the authors’ own published charts – each showing a valid if imperfect indicator of per-capita sugar consumption – trend up not down in the 1980-2010 timeframe.
Readers, please scroll down: do Figures 1-4 suggest sugar consumption trended down, or up? Do you “get” what I am making a fuss about? Readers, this is not rocket science. This is simple stuff. If the range of valid evidence points up not down, then the conclusion of down is wrong. End of story.
Source: Australian Paradox Revisited; My trend scratched in for “the past 30 years”
Take Figure 1. Readers, please draw in your own “trend line” in the relevant 1980 to 2010 timeframe. Yes, the trend is up. Not down. Not flat. Extraordinarily, the authors refuse to notice: “…using only ABARE data [in Figure 1], we can conclude that overall availability of refined sugar varied widely but shows no significant trend (p = 0.46) during a period when rates of obesity climbed dramatically” (p. 2 of #15).
Also, the authors’ false suggestion – on Figure 1 – that apparent consumption statistics no longer are available for “any foodstuff, including sugar” is mocked by the ongoing publication of official estimates for easier-to-measure food and drink products like beef, lamb, pork, chicken, butter, milk, cheese, beer and wine. Of course, counting the amount of sugar already mixed into our food supply is especially problematic, another key fact the authors avoid like the plague (p. 1 in #20.)
I’m guessing that pretending critical facts do not exist never gets tiresome for unreliable scientists defending a faulty self-published paper. Vice-Chancellor Spence is paid the big bucks in part to root out underperformance that brings the University of Sydney into disrepute. Yes, Dr Spence, it’s time to act. Again, the authors’ “finding” of “a consistent and substantial decline” in the 1980 to 2010 timeframe is contradicted by their own charts (Figures 1-4). And the important chart in #26. Yes, the highly idiosyncratic Australian Paradox “finding” is a farce.
Regardless, our unreliable authors went ahead with their claim to have documented “an inverse relationship” between sugar intake and obesity between 1980 and 2010, as obesity surged. Yes, sugar down, obesity up – it’s “The Australian Paradox”! Actually, it’s an inadvertent hoax, along the lines of the Australian Blue Kangaroo hoax described on Slide 44 at #18.
Readers, when something doesn’t quite make sense – a potential “paradox” – do you carefully double-check your basic facts and reassess the evidence? Unacceptably, instead of revisiting the uptrends in their own charts – and correcting their obvious misreading of the facts – the authors simply pushed the “publish” button at their preferred pay-as-you-publish E-journal.
Readers, I am outraged that the blatantly false information published by the University of Sydney’s under-supervised scientists on the formal scientific record turned up to misinform Federal Parliament again last week (Section 8). While that pro-sugar misinformation no doubt is appreciated by the sugar and sugary food industries – and tends to be supportive of the University’s business revenues (Section 9) – the general public is being misinformed and pubic health is being compromised. In my opinion, this is research misconduct (Section 1), and it should be stamped out without further unreasonable delay.
4. CARS NOT HUMANS CONSUMED A BIG CHUNK OF THE AVAILABLE SUGAR! REALLY? NO.
After the credibility of the Australian Paradox paper was publicly shredded by a report from widely respected journalist Michael Pascoe in March 2012 (links below), authors Barclay and Brand-Miller responded by claiming that my critique is flawed in part because I’d overlooked the fact that cars not humans had been consuming a big chunk of the available sugar via ethanol production:
In Australia, ABARE data…show that ethanol production as a biofuel for transport rose from 42 million litres to 209 million litres (almost 4-fold) [actually it's 5-fold - another tough calculation!] from 2005 to 2009. [Then footnoted] If 100% raw sugar were used for this purpose and the fermentation process were 100% efficient (it isn’t), it would require ~14kg per capita per year, ie a significant proportion of the ‘available’ sugar. Although there are no firm figures for how much raw sugar is presently being used for ethanol production, supplies of C-molasses alone are not adequate, and the absolute amounts are likely to be increasing. (My bolding; p.2 of authors’ “RESPONSE TO RORY ROBERTSON”, at #2).
The authors’ false made-up story put the figure at up to “~14kg”. Awkwardly, the correct figure is zero; sugar was not used in Australian ethanol production at all (Slides 38-48 in #18). Are serious scientists allowed to make up new false claims to defend old false claims?
To recap, my original critique featured the criticism that authors Barclay and Brand-Miller are careless with facts. Immediately proving my point, they literally manufactured a new “fact” – cars not humans are hoovering the sugar. These shenanigans were documented by Michael Pascoe: http://www.smh.com.au/business/pesky-economist-wont-let-big-sugar-lie-20120725-22pru.html
In my opinion, Pascoe’s report provides unmistakable confirmation that Dr Barclay and Professor Brand-Miller – on the topic of Australian sugar consumption – did not know what they are talking about, or worse. On top of negligently ignoring key facts that invalidate their “sugar is not a problem” story (like Figures 1-4), they grasped at straws and made up stuff when challenged to justify their “findings”.
Notably, that figure of up to “~14kg” worth of the available sugar was just sufficient – if the true figure were not zero! – to “kill” the uptrend in Figure 1. It’s unsettling that the authors – under scrutiny - were so keen to find something – anything – to rescue their faulty paper (Slides 38 and 39 in #18).
Readers, only after that extraordinarily ham-fisted attempt to twist non-existent facts to advantage did I decide it was reasonable to refer to the negligent Australian Paradox paper as the “shonky sugar study”. Was that unreasonable?
On the matter of recklessly promoting misinformation in an attempt to rescue the pro-sugar Australian Paradox paper, please consider the combined efforts recently of the University of Sydney and its business associate, the Australian sugar industry (#20, #21, #24, #25 and #26). Yes, ironically, the sugar industry’s attempt to rescue the faulty paper provided further confirmation that its main “finding” is false. Readers, does the chart in #26 trend up or down?
In summary, this Australian Paradox episode has morphed from an academic embarrassment to a growing public-health scandal involving the authors, the sugar industry, the senior management of the University of Sydney and the obscure journal Nutrients. And all because no-one has been prepared to correct or retract an obviously faulty self-published paper that is being used by the University and the food industry to promote sugar and sugary products as Healthy (Slide 12 in #22).
5. IGNORING KEY FACTS TO EMBRACE DATA DISCONTINUED AS UNRELIABLE, THEN FALSIFIED
As noted above, the credibility of the University of Sydney’s “finding” of a “consistent and substantial decline” in (added) sugar consumption between 1980 and 2010 was shredded in March 2012.
Take Figure 2, below. Readers, the top line shows shows a 30% increase in annual per-capita sales of sugary softdrinks (“nutritively sweetened beverages”), from about 35L to about 45L. And since we are assessing only trends in sugar consumption, only the (sugary) top line is relevant. The authors’ focus on sugarless diet drinks and bottled water – the red line – is a furphy.
Importantly, check out the eye-popping-yet-still-published error: “Food industry data indicate that per capita sales of low calorie (non-nutrititively sweetened) beverages doubled from 1994 to 2006 [correct: from 15L to 30L] while nutritively sweetened beverages decreased by 10%“ [oops, it's a 30% rise; my bolding; p. 500].
Source: Australian Paradox ; My mark is the 2004 (not 2003) “peak” in sugary softdrinks
Yes, that 30% increase, if anything, suggests that sugar consumption increased. Yes, the focus on sugarless drinks and market shares is a furphy. Yes, assessing that 30% rise in sales of sugary softdrinks as one “line of evidence” supportive of the Australian Paradox “finding” tells us all we need to know about the authors’ level of competence, if the ethanol fiasco and the basic maths errors documented above were not sufficiently revealing. Readers, is it unreasonable to grade the quality of “the science” in this episode as “clownish”?
In short, Figures 1 and 2 completely contradict the claim of “a consistent and substantial decline” in (added) sugar consumption over the 1980 to 2010 timeframe. So too, the uptrends in Figures 3 and 4 (in Section 6, next) tend to contradict that silly false claim (also see Slides 13-20 in the next link).
Readers, the Australian Paradox “finding” results from the authors simply ignoring the fact that Figures 1-4 all trend up not down in the 1980-2010 timeframe, then relying solely on a fifth data series, the basis of which was discontinued as unreliable by the ABS after 1998-99, and then falsified in the 2000s by the FAO. Consider the conspicuously flat green lines in Slides 21 and 22 of http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/22Slideshowaustraliangoestoparadoxcanberrafinal.pdf
Readers, how did experienced scientists – diligent researchers wrestling with a “paradox” and searching for “the truth”! – fail to notice the conspicuous flat-lining of their preferred FAO series? If the authors had been appropriately curious about their (bogus) “paradox” result, investigations soon would have revealed that the FAO series was artificially flat in the 2000s only because it was falsified by the FAO, after the ABS discontinued its sugar series as unreliable (Letter 7 at #29).
Yes, readers, the fact that the false Australian Paradox “finding” relies on falsified data is awkward for Vice-Chancellor Spence and other misguided defenders of the University of Sydney’s “shonky sugar study”. Yes, authors Barclay and Brand-Miller were “a bit unlucky”, in that it may not have crossed their minds that the conspicuously flat green line in their preferred chart indicated that the FAO had simply falsified Australian sugar data to avoid an unsightly hole in its global dataset.
So too, growing numbers of fat and diabetic everyday Australians are “a bit unlucky” if they mistakenly accept the University’s unexpectedly reckless false claim – on the formal scientific record – that sugar is not a health hazard. Going the other way, the false result tends to support the revenues of the University’s low-GI enterprise. Yes, “It’s an ill wind that blows no good”.
Now that the serious problems with the University’s “shonky sugar study” are increasingly widely understood, the negligent paper should be corrected or retracted. Taxpayers have a right to expect the University of Sydney to protect the public debate from nonsense-based scientific “findings” self-published by its under-supervised scientists.
Rather than conceding any of the problems I have documented above, however, authors Barclay and Brand-Miller have chosen to claim that they have made no mistakes, and that my correct critique is incompetent: “Professor Brand-Miller says Mr Robertson is not a nutritionist and does not understand nutrition”: http://www.smh.com.au/national/health/research-causes-stir-over-sugars-role-in-obesity-20120330-1w3e5.html
Actually, I understand plenty about nutrition. Moreover, after a quarter-century as a professional economist, I find it hard not to notice sloppy, incompetent analysis. It is revealing that authors Brand-Miller and Barclay seem unaware that the core of our dispute was never about “nutrition” or “science”: it always was about simple things like up versus down, valid versus invalid, and the need to correct serious errors in the public debate.
Readers, the University of Sydney’s senior “scientists” failed to notice that four out of their five indicators of per-capita consumption trended up not down. Thus the Australian Paradox “finding” relies solely on a sugar series that was discontinued as unreliable by ABS after 1998-99, and then falsified by the FAO in the 2000s (Letter 7, #29).
Why were none of these issues mentioned let alone discussed in the Australian Paradox paper? And why were these issues not properly addressed in Australian Paradox Revisited (#15), the authors’ second fluffy attempt to counter my correct and credibility-cratering critique?
6. UNRELIABLE SCIENTISTS’ OWN CHARTS CONTRADICT PET CLAIM ON SUGAR: SO WHAT DO THEY SAY?
Readers, with their own charts contradicting their long-time pet story, the authors “found” special factors to explain why four separate indicators trend up not down in the 1980 to 2010 timeframe:
- For Figure 1, the authors claimed that motor vehicles not humans consumed a big chunk of the available sugar via ethanol production. Awkwardly, Section 4 above revealed that reckless made-up claim to be complete nonsense, apparently leaving (human) consumption broadly free to follow the clear uptrend in sugar availability in the 1980-2010 timeframe.
- For Figure 2, the authors claimed that the faster growth in diet drinks and bottled water somehow offsets a 30% rise in sales of sugary softdrinks. Actually, it doesn’t. In their defence, the authors seem blissfully unaware that they are promoting a complete furphy. (Importantly, big-sellers Coke, Sprite and Fanta all still have sugar contents in excess of 10%.)
- For Figures 3 and 4, below, the authors claimed that growth in the consumption of intrinsic (non-refined) sugars occurred alongside a decline in the consumption of refined sugar (sucrose). Again, that’s stretching the data beyond what is reasonable. The authors produced no convincing evidence that there was a “consistent and substantial” decline in the consumption of refined sugar (there is none), and made further serious errors when fashioning their preferred story (#4). And it’s a moot point anyway, given that eating either refined fructose – (say) in softdrinks – or unrefined fructose – (say) in fruit juices – in unnaturally elevated doses provides a similar boost to obesity (and diabetes).
Source: Australian Paradox
Again, Figures 3 and 4 show uptrends not downtrends. So the authors were left claiming special knowledge about those various (dated) nationwide dietary surveys, unconvincingly cherry-picking bits and pieces to insist refined-sugar consumption declined. To be fair, the dated snapshots for adults in 1983 and 1995 in Figure 3 actually are agnostic about whether consumption of refined sugar rose or fell, when you look into the nitty-gritty of the data (#4 and pp. 15-18 of #1).
For children in Figure 4, however, the trend spanned by the point estimates from 1985 to 2007 is up not down for “Total sugars”, “Sugary products”, “Confectionery”, “Non-alcoholic beverages” and the other large sugary category of “Cereal-based products and dishes”. Yes, unambiguously, the post-1980 trend in sugars consumption for children is flat/up not down as obesity ballooned (see Figure 4a in Slide 17 at #22). Again, what Australian Paradox?
7. UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY’S FRAUDULENT DEFENCE OF ITS PUBLISHED MISINFORMATION
Importantly, Australia’s most-trusted nutritionist - Dr Rosemary Stanton – has been scathing about the University of Sydney’s “shonky sugar study”:
“And yes, I agree with you [Rory] that we have no evidence that sugar consumption in Australia has fallen. A walk around any supermarket shows that huge numbers of foods contain sugar. I argue this point frequently with colleagues”; “I have many objections to that particular paper and to the idea that sugar is not a problem”; and “I have expressed my opinion about the paper to the authors … I will almost certainly cite it at some stage as an example of something I consider to be incorrect” (Slide 18 in #22).
Outrageously, the authors chose to ignore the readily available facts – in their own charts! – and instead claim – via a University of Sydney website – that they have made no errors, that their faulty paper is fine and that Rory Robertson is incompetent in this matter:
“Unfortunately, there are factual errors in the economist’s arguments, and misinterpretation of the distinctions between total sugars vs. refined sugars, sugar availability vs. apparent consumption, sugar-sweetened and diet soft drinks, and other nutrition information“: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/JBM-AWB-AustralianParadox.pdf via http://www.glycemicindex.com/
Of course, I have made no such errors. Critically, the authors have documented no such errors. So where are we left? Well, one simple definition of fraud is “intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraud
In my opinion, the University’s scientists have chosen to bolster their credibility and careers at the expense of mine; have chosen not to correct their initial misrepresentations in order to limit the damage to their reputations, in the process maximising the damage to mine. This approach thus fits the definition of fraud above. Disturbingly, in the year or so since I correctly advised Vice-Chancellor Spence of the serious problems in his nutrition “science” area (Section 8), he has allowed his staff to falsely trash my reputation (#26). In November 2012, one of his “scientists” even came online to describe me as a criminal “Troll” (p. 2 of #27).
At this stage, I am not planning to sue the University for defamation. But I am interested in understanding who there – if anyone! – is in charge of quality control and integrity in science. And, yes, I would like an apology, right after the University corrects or retracts its faulty self-published paper.
Readers, another couple of questions please: (i) does the chart in that JBM-AWB link above trend flat/up or down? And (ii) is that Green Pool sugar series – a series that was explicitly commissioned, funded and “framed” by the sugar industry – really “independent” in a debate on the increasingly clear links between sugar and obesity? Finally, on the issue of scientific fraud, please consider my “Australian Blue Kangaroo” analogy on Slide 44 at #18.
8. FURTHER “NEGLIGENCE” AND “RECKLESSNESS” BEHIND MISINFORMATION ON PUBLIC HEALTH
In 2012, the University of Sydney refused to concede anything. Indeed, Vice-Chancellor Spence insisted that there is nothing to discuss. Everything is fine, he mistakenly claimed:
“Dear Mr Robertson
I have received your e-mail of 24 May.
On the advice available to me the report of Professor Brand-Miller’s research which appears in Nutrients was independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication in that reputable journal.
In that circumstance there is no further action which the University can or should take in relation to your concerns.
DR MICHAEL SPENCE | Vice-Chancellor and Principal UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY“http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/SydneyUniVC%20LETTER070612.pdf
Dr Spence’s claim that the faulty paper was “peer-reviewed” merely confirms that the University’s quality-control system is broken. That is, the Australian Paradox paper is dominated by clownish errors – confusing up with down and relying on falsified data to produce an obviously incorrect “finding” – yet Dr Spence insists that the paper went through the University’s usual quality-control process.
In fact, quality control in this episode has been a sham: after all, a range of obvious errors walked – wearing dinner suits and top hats, while singing loudly – right through quality control into a formal, published paper. Was “peer review” in this case non-existent, ignored or just incompetent?
Regardless, the University of Sydney is now promoting blatantly false information – misinforming Federal Parliament and the general public on the origins of obesity – while Vice-Chancellor Spence pretends to the world that the University’s quality-control system is working well. That is unreasonable, not to say reckless.
Last year, Dr Spence chose to ignore the evidence I conveyed to him and his staff on this matter (#4, #10, #11, #12), in favour of the “There is no problem” fiction from an unnamed “advisor”. So, who is the unidentified advisor who misled Dr Spence before he unwisely and mistakenly verified the veracity of the disputed paper?
Well, what we know for sure is that Professor Brand-Miller was the lead author of the faulty paper, as well as the “Guest Editor” of the publishing journal. Was she also the source of Dr Spence’s misinformation on the veracity of her own failed quality-control process? Is that what happened? Or did the authors advise Professor Jill Trewhella, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) (#19), who in turn mistakenly advised her boss that the negligent paper is fine?
I do not know who said what, but the bottom line remains that the University of Sydney is recklessly defending false information on the origins of obesity (and so diabetes). Outrageously, in the year or so since I correctly advised Dr Spence that his University’s system of quality control is broken, he has allowed his authors to falsely trash my reputation via a University website (#26). Again, Dr Barclay even came online to describe me as a criminal “Troll” (p. 2 of #27).
For those keen on self-published science, try this ~600 g “fact” for size: “Overall, there was a decrease in sugar contribution from nutritively sweetened carbonated soft drinks to the Australian food supply, amounting to 12,402 tons (~600 g per person per year, Figure 6) from 2002 to 2006″ (p.498). Yes, readers, that’s 12,402, 000,000 grams in total over four years, shared between some 20 million Australians. So, dividing by four, that’s roughly 3,000, 000,000 grams per annum shared between some 20, 000,000 of us. Cancel seven zeros and that’s 300 grams per year between two people. Or ~150 g per person per year, not “~600 g per person per year”.
Yes, that “~600 g” figure is wrong only by a factor of four. Yes, that basic but revealing error – on top of the extraordinary errors documented earlier – was self-published in a formal journal. And how’s this for high farce? Professor Jill Trewhella, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), claims that the error-ridden paper went through quality control involving “internationally accepted standard practice” (#19). Umm, the lead author and the Guest Editor are the same person! Readers, is that really a standard practice? Or is the University of Sydney’s quality control in this instance a sham?
Why is the University’s senior management defending a false “finding” that has become a menace to public health as serious “peer-reviewed” science? Why is it allowing Federal Parliament to be misled on the link between sugar consumption and obesity? And not for the first time: p. 4 of 5 at http://www.ronboswell.com/speeches/3935-matters-of-public-importance-sugar-industry-8-february-2012 Why is it allowing the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) to promote the University’s flagrantly false claim of “an inverse relationship” between sugar consumption and obesity?
In my opinion, the University of Sydney has displayed persistent negligence – a determined recklessness with facts – that has left the public record seriously misinformed on the origins of obesity and diabetes; in particular, the disingenuous defence of clearly false information by its scientists and senior management has been reckless. Again, I view this episode as a serious case of research misconduct (Section 1).
Readers, as taxpayers funding the University of Sydney we deserve much better. After all, the NHMRC – Australia’s principal health advisor – in February toughened dietary advice against added sugar, going out of its way to highlight the fact that there is no “Australian Paradox”: more sugar means more obesity – not less – in both adults and children: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-02-19/new-diet-guidelines-spark-debate-on-sugar/4526174
9. UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY’S UNDER-DISCLOSED AND MIS-MANAGED PRO-SUGAR CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
The senior University of Sydney scientists’ main false claims include:
(a) there is “an inverse relationship” between (added) sugar consumption and obesity (#22); and
(b) there is “absolute consensus that sugar in food does not cause diabetes” (#33).
Absolute consensus, as debate rages all around! It’s reckless for the University to promote such flagrant falsehoods in the critical debate on the origins of obesity and diabetes. Importantly, the NHMRC’s code of conduct requires any University of Sydney research effort seeking to exonerate added sugar as a menace to public health to disclose and manage all conflicts of interest, including financial links to the sugar and sugary food industries. This has not been done properly, in my opinion.
On conflicts of interest, my concern is that the University’s scientists are seeking to falsely exonerate sugar as health hazard, while operating the University’s pro-sugar Low-GI business, an enterprise that charges up to $6000 per product to promote selected sugar and sugary products as Healthy (Slides 11 and 12 in #22).
Again, it’s a problem that sugar is a menace to public health, according to the NHMRC (#28). In any case, the general public must be properly informed that food-industry service providers Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay cannot be treated as objective observers on the health consequences of sugar consumption. After all, “Sugar is not a problem” must be their “party line”, because their trademark low-GI approach to nutrition revolves around the idea that low-GI foods (GI 55 and under) are good for your health. Awkwardly, fructose – the “sweet poison” half of added sugar – has a super-low GI of 19 – so it must be fine (p. 3 of #19).
Readers, if super-low-GI fructose turns out not to be “just another carbohydrate” but as harmful as a growing nucleus of global scientists believe – that in modern doses it is a key driver of obesity and diabetes – the authors will have been completely wrong on the thing that matters most. Someone unkind might then say that Professor Brand-Miller spent three decades seeking to identify “good carbs” and “bad carbs”, yet somehow managed not to identify the one profoundly bad carbohydrate – fructose! (Part 2)
Critically, Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay’s low-GI-focused careers depend on added sugar – and so super-low GI=19 added fructose – being perceived by the general public as harmless in modern doses. This is a serious conflict of interest that should be properly disclosed each time they appear in the public debate attempting to (falsely) exonerate sugar.
In any case, why is the University so determined to exonerate added sugar as a menace to public health – see the various newspaper links on p. 2 of #12 – given the increasingly strong evidence in the other direction (#28)? It’s hard to know exactly but a bit of digging revealed the University of Sydney’s surprising financial links to the sugar and sugary food industries. Again, Professor Brand-Miller and Dr Barclay operate the University’s GI enterprise that generates revenues by stamping low-GI sugar and sugary processed foods as Healthy (Slide 12 in #22). Moreover, joining forces with the sugar industry, the University in 2009 helped to produce a new brand of sugar: CSR LogiCane.
In the US, “Big Sugar” set out in the 1950s to scramble and mislead science on the links between modern sugar consumption and chronic diseases. On the way, Harvard University in the 1960s and 1970s became America’s “most public defender” of “modern sugar consumption” as harmless, its “science” reportedly corrupted by heavy funding from the sugar and sugary food industries (#24).
In Australia, the University of Sydney is home to our highest-profile academic defenders of added sugar in food as harmless (again, see those newspaper links on p. 2 of #12). Interestingly, Professor Brand-Miller’s work is favoured by the World Sugar Research Organisation (see “references” in http://www.wsro.org/AboutSugar/Sugardiabetes.aspx )
Readers, is the strong flow of false information I have documented in this Australian Paradox episode just persistent negligence, or is something more insidious underway at the University of Sydney, as reportedly once was the case at Harvard? Beyond the issue of competence at the highest levels of Group of Eight science, who is in charge of making sure the University of Sydney’s serious pro-sugar conflicts of interest are properly managed and disclosed in the public debate?
10. WHAT IS TO BE DONE ABOUT RESEARCH MISCONDUCT IN SCIENCE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY?
In this final section of my mid-2013 revamp of the Australian Paradox critique, I still have more questions than answers. First, does anyone have a good reason why those first three errors – (i) “600 g” (p. 498); (ii) “decreased by 10%” (p. 500); and (iii) “300%” (p. 502) – should not be corrected immediately, in Nutrients alongside the authors’ initial formal Correction?
On top of the published mis-spelling of my name as “Roberston” (p. 3 of #15), this series of basic and conspicuous errors provides unmistakable evidence that the authors are sloppy with simple facts and fact-checking, and that the University’s claim of serious quality control in this episode is a sham.
Given this clear confirmation of carelessness, readers may now accept that the authors negligently overlooked critical facts, including that: (a) four indicators of sugar consumption trend up not down in their own charts! (Figures 1-4); (b) the Green Pool series in #26 suggests flat/up not down; (c) the critical ABS sugar series was discontinued as unreliable after 1998-99; and (d) their conspicuously flat preferred sugar series was falsified in the 2000s by the FAO.
Clearly, that series of serious errors both (i) invalidates the high-profile Australian Paradox “finding”; and (ii) makes a mockery of Vice Chancellor Spence’s claim that the obviously faulty paper was “independently and objectively peer-reviewed prior to its publication…”.
So, what to do? Well, “the governing authority of the University of Sydney” is the Senate, overseeing “all major decisions concerning the conduct of the University”: http://sydney.edu.au/senate/Fellows_biogs.shtml
As mentioned earlier, a “Fellow of Senate” recently told me face to face that I am right on this matter and the University is wrong. Various other eminent observers have said much the same thing. Journalists might want to ask the 20 or so Fellows of Senate about the extent to which they are aware of the research misconduct I have documented above. Are they unconcerned about the growing damage to the University of Sydney’s reputation for academic and scientific competence and integrity? Or are they – like the University’s senior management – hoping the problem somehow just goes away? (It won’t.)
At a time when the Group of Eight (universities) is advertising for increased taxpayer funding on the basis that “research intensive universities” are special, is the Go8 comfortable with the University of Sydney defending obviously shonky science? http://www.go8.edu.au/university-staff/go8-policy-_and_-analysis/2013/discussion-paper-the-role-and-importance-of-research-intensive-universities
In my opinion, at least one “research intensive” Go8 university in Australia is indeed somewhat special, possessing a special arrogance that allows it pretend to taxpayers that its error-laden, self-published research promoting a reckless false “finding” on the origins of obesity – a result supportive of the University’s business revenues but damaging to public health – is top-quality “peer-reviewed” science.
Readers, I’ve tried to present the facts as I see them. Perhaps you now understand why I’m urging a formal investigation into this serious episode of “research misconduct”. Please correct me – and be critical of my efforts publicly – if you consider anything I have written here or elsewhere to be factually incorrect or otherwise unreasonable.
Of course, this all matters only to the extent that we care about competence and integrity in science, and about adults and kids – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – suffering under the weight of obesity and the associated uptrend in amputations and early deaths via T2-diabetes. Thanks for your time and interest. (10 June 2013)
economist and former-fattie
Strathburn Cattle Station is a proud partner of YALARI, Australia’s leading provider of quality boarding-school educations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teenagers. Check it out at http://www.strathburn.com/yalari.php